"The WEIRDest People in the World"
Why have historians had such a hard time figuring out Mary Lincoln?
Note: sorry for the long delay—got absorbed in work and other things.
This week, a new book called The WEIRDest People in the World:
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous got a lot of attention. Author Joseph Henrich first introduced the concept of “W.E.I.R.D.” people years ago, and some of you may be familiar with it. The acronym stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” How this connects to Mary Lincoln is going to require a bit of an explanation.
A simplistic version of Henrich’s argument goes something like this: Centuries ago, some European religious authorities began prohibiting cousin marriage. Over time, the cultural norms of these communities evolved in ways that favored the rise of “W.E.I.R.D.” societies. Basically, having to look outside your immediate “clan” to find a spouse led to “creating states to replace tribes, science to replace lore and law to replace custom.”
This version is a bit overly flattering to “weirdos,” the term I will use from now on because it flows better. This is not meant as an insult. The linked NYT piece notes, “If you are reading this you are very probably WEIRD, and so are almost all of your friends and associates, but we are outliers on many psychological measures.” I’m definitely a weirdo. The key driver behind this culture, Henrich argues, is the dismantling of kin-ship structures.
The centerpiece of Henrich’s theory is the role played by what he calls the Roman Catholic Church’s Marriage and Family Program, featuring prohibitions of polygamy, divorce, marriage to first cousins, and even to such distant blood relatives as sixth cousins, while discouraging adoption and arranged marriages and the strict norms of inheritance that prevailed in extended families, clans and tribes. “The accidental genius of Western Christianity was in ‘figuring out’ how to dismantle kin-based institutions while at the same time catalyzing its own spread.”
It’s not just not marrying your cousin, but that once you marry someone outside of your family, a person of your choice rather than theirs, you can’t get divorced or fall back much on extended family structures or inheritance. It required and selected for a certain self-interested independence and atomization.
One of the things I thought about when I first came across this theory was how my mom grew up on a street where everyone was half-Irish and half-Italian. It makes sense that people who were open to marrying someone from a different culture in the 1950s might have some personality traits in common and tend to form communities. This choice may sound like no big deal today, but even if it wasn’t scandalous then (“as long as he’s Catholic!”), it was an adjustment that not everyone was willing to make at a time where it was possible to stay within an immigrant community.
From another review:
Loosened from their roots, people gathered in cities. There they developed “impersonal prosociality”—that is, they bonded with other city folk. They wrote city charters and formed professional guilds. Sometimes they elected leaders, the first inklings of representative democracy. Merchants had to learn to trade with strangers. Success in this new kind of commerce required a good reputation, which entailed new norms, such as impartiality. You couldn’t cheat a stranger and favor relatives and expect to make a go of it.
By the time Protestantism came along, people had already internalized an individualist worldview. Henrich calls Protestantism “the WEIRDest religion,” and says it gave a “booster shot” to the process set in motion by the Catholic Church. Integral to the Reformation was the idea that faith entailed personal struggle rather than adherence to dogma. Vernacular translations of the Bible allowed people to interpret scripture more idiosyncratically. The mandate to read the Bible democratized literacy and education. After that came the inquiry into God-given natural (individual) rights and constitutional democracies. The effort to uncover the laws of political organization spurred interest in the laws of nature—in other words, science. The scientific method codified epistemic norms that broke the world down into categories and valorized abstract principles. All of these psychosocial changes fueled unprecedented innovation, the Industrial Revolution, and economic growth.
This focus on material advancement and penchant for abstract thinking could lead to both great success in educational and institutional developments, and to a sort of self-absorption, which is also part of Henrich’s argument. This is where I part company with the NYT writer: I didn’t assume everyone on earth shared my cultural norms. Unfortunately, and rather unsurprisingly, this was not always the case for the many weirdos who became social scientists in the last century or so. From the NYT:
Henrich is an anthropologist at Harvard. He and his colleagues first described the WEIRD mind in a critique of all the work in human psychology (and the social sciences more generally) built on experimental subjects almost exclusively composed of undergraduates — or the children of academics and others who live near universities. The results obtained drawing on this conveniently available set of “normal” people were assumed by almost all researchers to be universal features of human nature, the human brain, the human emotional system. But when attempts were made to replicate the experiments with people in other countries, not just illiterate hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but the elites in Asian countries, for instance, it was shown in many cases that the subject pool of the original work had been hugely biased from the outset.
Naturally intellectual, weirdos are attracted to fields like history, social science, and psychology, and the last 100 years gave much more opportunity to do so. But, as is painfully evident in 20th century historians’ accounts of the 19th century, “WEIRD and non-WEIRD people possess opposing cognitive styles”—not just different, but opposing—and the former are often totally unable to understand the latter’s thinking. This is a particular problem for historians because there were a lot of prominent non-weirdos in 19th century America. This is less true today because, in general, the modern West rewards people who like to specialize, sometimes to the point of myopia.
Standing apart from the community, primed to break wholes into parts and classify them, Westerners are more analytical. People from kinship-intensive cultures, by comparison, tend to think more holistically. They focus on relationships rather than categories. Henrich defends this sweeping thesis with several studies, including a test known as the Triad Task. Subjects are shown three images—say, a rabbit, a carrot, and a cat. The goal is to match a “target object”—the rabbit—with a second object. A person who matches the rabbit with the cat classifies: The rabbit and the cat are animals. A person who matches the rabbit with the carrot looks for relationships between the objects: The rabbit eats the carrot. You have to wonder whether the Triad Task really reflects fundamentally different cognitive bents or differences in subjects’ personal experience. Henrich cites a Mapuche, an indigenous Chilean, who matched a dog with a pig, an “analytic” choice, except the man then explained that he’d done so for a “holistic” reason: because the dog guards the pig. “This makes perfect sense,” Henrich muses. “Most farmers rely on dogs to protect their homes and livestock from rustlers.” Exactly! A Western undergraduate, probably not having grown up with dogs protecting her pigs, sees dogs and pigs as just animals.
I think it is possible that most people are just using common sense, as developed in relation to their local circumstances, and that researchers are mainly just diagnosing their own excessively narrow worldview here. Why would we ever expect everyone to categorize a dog in the same way as everyone else, or even in one of two ways? Isn’t the “rabbit eating a carrot” thing kind of a “trope” specific to what children are taught in certain cultures? In the wild, they mostly eat other things. What if I said cat and carrot go together because they both begin with c? Or that the animals go together because cats eat rabbits and dogs eat pigs? Would Henrich be stunned into creating a third category?
But I also do think he is getting at something real. And I say that because, though I didn’t have a catchy term for it, I’d identified the same disconnect as being at the heart of the “Mary Lincoln Enigma.” It was evident most contemporaries were not nearly as discombobulated by her as historians were, even if they disliked her. As Horace Greeley allegedly put it: “She is a Kentuckian, and likes flattery.” New Englanders fully understood that Kentuckians did not share their worldview.
There were a lot of kinship-intensive communities in the 19th century U.S., and the cultural differences became conspicuous as I researched further. (Other books have been written on the regional cultural differences that helped cause the Civil War.) The Todds were famously clannish (as were Kentuckians generally—also, Mary’s parents were second cousins and one set of grandparents were first cousins.) This has all been established by earlier biographers, but this was often treated more like “ancestral lore,” a matter of flattering self-image, than something with real-world effects and an elaborate internal logic.
While Mary was obviously happy to move away from home and marry someone from a different background (Mary was oddly silent about her family history, and that seems like an under-explored issue), her moral instincts stayed firmly on the non-WEIRD side, as described in the NYT:
Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically, believe in free will, take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed. Right? They (the non-WEIRD majority) identify more strongly with family, tribe, clan and ethnic group, think more “holistically,” take responsibility for what their group does (and publicly punish those who besmirch the group’s honor), feel shame — not guilt — when they misbehave and think nepotism is a natural duty.
That last part is my emphasis. It’s a lot easier to see the significance of nepotism in the 19th century, because the patronage system was still in place, and it was common to reward friends/supporters and relatives with jobs.
Note the “Right?” The appeal to the audience seems to be about the belief that nepotism should be vigorously discovered, if not outlawed. I’m often stunned by how viscerally bothered some WEIRD people are by nepotism. And this isn’t related to perceived incompetence—we just can’t tolerate the appearance of that sort of thing without undermining respect for the entire system. Right?
The problem is that Civil War research turns up a great many people whose reply would be “wrong!” Some just think nepotism isn’t that big of a deal, or is okay in some circumstances. But Mary Lincoln, and many others in her day, clearly believed nepotism for deserving friends and relatives was, in fact, a natural duty.
Lincoln himself wasn’t all that far behind on this point. He was definitely more of a weirdo than Mary—far more abstract, and somewhat more analytical and individualistic (it’s hard to compare them on these points because women had less opportunity and incentive to display them). But he definitely had an affinity for tribal arrangements, which were the basis of 19th century politics, and a strong loyal streak. He felt he owed friends and relatives government positions, and acted on this without shame when he judged it appropriate, but he was also able to put other interests first and not go overboard with it. He could be impartial. And he was, of course, quite able to transcend tribal categories when called to do so.
But when most 20th century historians came across Mary’s shameless demands, reflective of her beliefs on this point, it looked morally grotesque. This was aggravated by the fact that, while weirdos feel guilt “if they fail to live up to their culturally inspired but self imposed standards,” non-weirdos use shame to control morality, by means of “societal standards and public standards.” So, Mary was in no way shy about her feelings on this point, as unlike the NYT implied, people don’t feel shame when they misbehave, as the NYT implied, but when others shame them for their misbehavior. And, for related reasons, Mary didn’t see most of the newspaper censure as legitimate—it was an attempt to decontextualize and personalize issues she understood as tribal matters of honor. (Social scientists call this “honor culture.”)
In summary, my argument is that the reason she morphed into some sort of enigmatic yet demonic figure is because so many historians just could not get where she was coming from on this and similar issues. Her battles for compensation from the government reflect this worldview, which seems incredibly entitled when viewed from a modern perspective. The historians who were more aware of these cultural differences had trouble applying them to women, and more feminist interpretations of Mary’s life generally use WEIRD assumptions, and are therefore unable to grasp the general norms surrounding politicians’ wives at the time. Even in atomized 19th century communities, husbands and wives were not seen as entirely individual entities. First ladies were seen as part of a “package deal,” and their involvement in patronage requests was entirely expected. It was seen as part of the “domestic sphere,” unlike policy-making or statesmanship.
All of this crystallizes if you immerse yourself in primary sources and view them “holistically,” rather than categorizing pieces of evidence in isolation. If I were to argue in favor of any non-WEIRD trait, it would be this one. As vocabulary.com puts it, “Holistic medicine looks at the whole person for answers, not just at physical symptoms.” I don’t think the opposite of this is “analytical thinking,” which implies understanding the whole and then breaking it down into more manageable parts. Skipping right to the parts is an error rather than a cognitive style.
All this may seem kind off-topic, but I’ve found frameworks like this key to making sense of Mary Lincoln and her legacy, and I hope you found it interesting.